How Credit Cards Work

Getting Rid of Debt

­I­f your credit-card balance has crept up to uncomfortable levels, you're not alone. Millions of Americans have learned -- the hard way -- how easy it is to use and abuse their credit cards and how difficult it can be to pay them off.

Myvesta (formerly Debt Counselors of America) and the National Consumer Law Center offer these credit-card debt elimination tips:


  • Always be aware of all of the fees that may be associated with your credit card. (That means not tossing out the fine-print leaflets that come in your bill periodically!) Know the annual fees, current interest rates, finance charges, cash-advance fees and any other fees tied in with your card. This knowledge can help you make better decisions on how to manage your card.
  • Cash advances can be trouble! You should only get cash advances when it is absolutely necessary. Higher interest rates (than you're paying for card purchases) are usually charged, and most banks also charge a service fee related to how much cash you're withdrawing. (The same applies to those handy, personalized "checks" the credit-card company sends you!)
  • Always be on the look-out for cards that offer lower interest rates. Transferring balances from one card to another to take advantage of low introductory rates is a common practice among U.S. cardholders. Low introductory rates can be very helpful in your quest to become free of credit-card debt. You should look for credit cards that offer a low intro rate (usually for six months), and transfer the balance from your previous credit card to that credit card. Before you take this step, however, make sure that, after the intro rate has expired, the new card offers the same (or lower) interest rate as your current card.
  • Experts say that making minimum payments is one of the most common mistakes consumers make. You will save lots of money on interest and get to debt-free goals sooner if you pay more than what is required each month.

It's true that it's really easy to fall into the credit-card trap, and not so easy to get out. But don't give up -- there are non-profit centers across the country that will provide counseling to you and will even (at no or low charge) contact your credit-card company and try to get your rate lowered or a different payment plan worked out. Check out this brief book list:

  • All About Credit: Questions (And Answers) About the Most Common Credit Problems, by Deborah McNaughton
  • What Every Credit Card User Needs to Know, by Howard Strong
  • The Insider's Guide to Credit Cards, by Barry Klein
  • Credit Card and Debt Management: A Step-by-Step How-to Guide for Organizing Debt and Saving Money on Interest Payments, by Scott Bilker

Using Your Card Abroad

Credit-card acceptance varies around the world. For example, in some countries (including France), Visa and MasterCard networks have been merged so that all merchants who take one, take them both. On the other hand, the cash-advance networks have not been merged. So, if you are in France, for example, almost any bank or ATM (if you have a four-digit PIN) can give you a cash advance on Visa, but only a few banks and cash machines (and all post offices) can give you a MasterCard cash advance.

In other countries (such as Italy), Visa and MasterCard networks have not merged. So, if you're going there, you might need both.

American Express and other T&E cards were originally aimed at an upscale market, catering to this group by offering check cashing, mail-holding and cash-advance services to traveling cardholders. (Now, Visa, MasterCard and others offer some of the same services.) AmEx and Diners Club are widely accepted in the United States, although not as widely as Visa and MasterCard.

In Europe, there are increasingly fewer places that accept only Diners Club or only American Express. In France, you can use American Express at more places than in the United States; in Italy, Germany, England and Greece, you can use it less, in general, except in shops with special appeal to tourists. Be sure to check out the credit-card situation before you travel.

For more information on credit cards and related topics, check out the links that follow.

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